To many, this might not be news. But in light of the current coronavirus pandemic, one thing has become even clearer than it was – we need human connection to work effectively. We take this for granted when we’re all working on site – connecting with each other just happens organically as we go about our day in the office. Now that that luxury is scarce if not impossible, human connection is something we’ve started to actively seek.
I recently read a book called “Drucker and Me” by Bob Buford which sheds some light on management guru Peter Drucker as a person, more than an institution. Buford, who fostered a lifelong mentorship with Drucker, once observed that Drucker seemed more interested in fiction rather than business in his choice of books. When asked about it, Drucker said:
“Books about business deal with functions and strategies… fiction teaches you about human beings… I’m more interested in people than I am in how businesses work.”– Peter Drucker
Drucker always framed management as a “human activity” and not a tool or process for running businesses. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to practice that human connection in your (permanently or temporarily) digital workplace.
Business as a human activity
While management is, as a matter of fact, a “human activity”, I personally don’t feel it’s mutually exclusive from being a tool for running businesses. In fact, I believe that to fully understand how businesses work, it’s important to have a good understanding of human connection.
Business and economics are, without a doubt, human activities. We may know, for example, that a lower supply leads to a higher price and a lower demand tends to lower that price. But behind this very fundamental truth are factors that are even more fundamental and deeply human – a group of workers on strike shutting down production lines, a person buying 10 of every single thing due to an impending lockdown, a family hesitant to spend anything due to uncertainty.
Economists may have it in their job description to abstract all of these into numbers and charts for easy processing. I believe managers, on the other hand, need to have a good grasp of this human aspect to effectively do their work.
The Agile Manifesto
Part of the agile manifesto states that “we prefer individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. Again, not mutually exclusive, but the point is clear. Regardless of what incredible tools and well-designed processes we might come up with for our work, it will never replace having talented individuals in your team and allowing them to work effectively and connect with each other. Tools and processes can help you achieve that, but if you don’t have those elements in the first place, you won’t get good results.
The software world is unsurprisingly full of technocrats – people who are eager to try out the latest technology available for their purposes. Likewise, making a living out of algorithms makes us feel more comfortable in the structure of a rigid process. It’s ironic that we often claim “agile” but are more than glad to wall in our teams with mandatory tools and processes.
While I’ve personally been guilty of being too process-centric at some point, I’ve recently come to realize that while processes can help someone get a start on something, it all boils down to intent. When you have talented individuals on your team, allow them the freedom to achieve the intent in their own way. Likewise, tools should be used to support individual excellence and fluid interactions, not the other way around.
Our role as managers
Assuming you came from a software development background, you’re probably used to having very structured “conversations” with your computer. You tell it what to do through a set of instructions in a very structured language. If it doesn’t do things right, you just know you gave it the wrong instructions. You then correct your instructions and hope for the best. Rinse, repeat.
Managing humans is a completely different story. We have structured language but, whether we like it or not, everyone uses it a little differently. Sufficient instruction for one person may not necessarily be enough for another. Any one instruction, lacking the context, could mean a hundred different things to different people. Now imagine twenty people giving various instructions to each other. The odds of a misunderstanding, obviously, grows exponentially with every new person you add to the group.
You can’t hope to control that completely, but you can do a lot to make your odds better. Fostering human connection within your team is essential to help them learn each other’s language. In this time of COVID-19, we’ve lost a lot of things that helped make this happen. We’ve lost visibility on who’s actually around at work and what they might be up to, watercooler and lunch room chats that gave us a peak into each other’s lives, and the light moments and laughter that make our coworkers human in our eyes.
Of course, all is not lost. You can do a lot to promote connection even in the digital space. Be creative and allow yourself to be vulnerable in these difficult times, and your team might just follow suit.
What are you currently doing to promote human connection in your digital workspace? Has it been effective for you? Share your stories in the comments and help someone who might be struggling with this.